My not-that-exciting “Eat, Pray, Love”

Esteban Gast
Aug 10, 2016 · 8 min read

I’m currently writing this from the middle of the Panamanian jungle.

There’s a wasp that keeps buzzing around my hat. Every few sentences I shake my head like I’m passionately motioning “no,” as if the wasp is looking for my consent before it lands on me. Everything around me is wood. I’m sitting on a wooden chair, typing on a wooden table, surrounded by the tropical rainforest (spoiler alert: the rainforest has a lot of wood).

My job title is “dean,” though it mostly involves keeping the spirits of a bunch of college students up in a harsh environment that involves hard labor and unforgiving tropical storms. It’s stupidly humid. As my computer grows slower and slower to respond to my typing, I’m beginning to realize that Chromebooks weren’t built to withstand this kind of weather.

But I feel closer to happiness than I have in a year.

Ten months ago, my wife and I separated. Eight months ago, I moved out. Three months ago, I moved to Panama. It’s like “Eat, Pray, Love” — minus the part where I get a movie deal. And instead of a strong and independent woman, I’m a 25-year-old man-boy who talks to his parents every few days.

Here’s the funny part: I remember when “Eat, Pray, Love” came out. As a stand up comedian, I joked at the time that if I ever got a divorce, I would also face the difficult emotions by eating gelato and sleeping with Greek men. I got some laughs, especially when I added lines like, “What better way to fix a difficult home situation than by leaving home and living a life of luxury?”

When I wrote that joke, I never would have guessed that a few years later, my own wife would ask me for a divorce.

Actually, I don’t know if “asked” for a divorce is the right way to phrase it. It was more of a strong suggestion. Like when your friend says, “Do you want to see Finding Dory?” You both know the answer is yes.

She suggested I move out via email because we are millennials and everything old people say about us is true. I read the email and then lay in our bed next to her and told her I would leave. I remember that conversation took place after we had bought the new Adele CD, which made the whole exchange feel even farther from reality than it already did. Adele crooned in the background and I decided [was told] that one of us [me] would move out soon [by the end of the year].

Let me be clear: my ex-wife is fantastic. She is the most selfless person I’ve ever met. She would make Mother Teresa look selfish. But selflessness does not guarantee you’ll continue to be in love with someone. And my wife had fallen out of love with me. Really, we fell out of love with each other. But it was her doing most of the falling out and me realizing that I should be with someone who…you know…is in love with me.

She and I stayed up late for countless nights talking and being honest about our feelings. We thought about friends and family members in loveless marriages, and we decided the pain of ending our relationship was better than the numbness of staying in it.

I never thought I’d get divorce. Even when my ex-wife and I started having problems in our marriage, I never worried. I’m an old-school Catholic boy; I made a commitment to God when I got married. Leaving a marriage is not an option. In the Catholic Church, divorce is like not knowing the words to the Apostles’ Creed or not watching the bowl game Notre Dame is in. It’s unthinkable.

I used to think divorcees were selfish and drove fancy sportscars. I have now come to understand that divorce can be an act of love and that really anyone can buy a sportscar.

Yes, I said it, baby boomer shaking your head at millennials for the second time this essay: divorce is an act of love. It is knowing your partner can be loved better. It is making the immensely difficult and public decision to end a faltering relationship rather than staying with someone out of obligation. It’s the humility of legally saying, “I made a mistake and I am sorry.”

For my ex, it was her final act of love and selflessness.

So, after five years of dating, three years of living together and just over a year of marriage, I moved two hours north, to Chicago, from our home in Champaign. I left a renovated loft that could have been on Pinterest to a one-bedroom apartment with a 22-year-old who didn’t own any cups, so we drank out of mugs and red solo cups. That Pinterest page isn’t too popular.

My roommate was Erik, a comedian friend who looked like he was a Vine star and quickly found work as an indoor skydiving instructor. I wish you could see this guy when he floats on air — he’s a natural talent.

Before I moved in, Erik and I decided to go to Panama for a New Year’s Eve party hosted by Kalu Yala, an eco-community I worked at three years prior. I won’t provide all the details of the party to protect my relationship with my parents. But let’s just say that when 2016 started, I was on a yacht that belonged to the nephew of the country’s former dictator, kissing one of the most accomplished and impressive women I had ever met. Just the typical Panama experience. Thanks, TripAdvisor!

After the New Year’s event, I returned to Chicago to see what life looked like as a 24-year-old divorcee. But my life in Chicago barely took place in Chicago. I said “yes” to every opportunity to travel and perform. I toured the northeast for three straight weeks, performing comedy everywhere from college cafeterias to the boarding school Donald Trump’s kids went to.

It’s an interesting metaphor to travel so much when your life is in transition. I felt like I had no real home, yet felt anxious in my new apartment. I was excited to meet new people, yet would see parts of my ex in many of the people I met.

Mostly, I felt the contradictory feelings that freedom brings. A sense that anything is possible, and the crushing realization that things will never be like they were before.

I continued traveling and speaking and taking on more than I could. I looked at my future, and I would feel vertigo from all the possibilities while simultaneously realizing the impermanence of all things. I could do anything…but it would all eventually end.

I used productivity as a defense mechanism. I would work from 9am to 7pm and then perform from 7pm to 1am. I was constantly tired, yet eager to continue working. Free time felt risky; not being occupied meant I could slip back and think about how life could drastically change at a moment’s notice.

Being busy is as addicting as any other drug. I was overdosing regularly. I used productivity and projects to inject meaning into my life. I used my busy schedule to avoid processing the pain and shame of my divorce.

During that time, I returned to Panama to emcee some events. While here, my relationship with the impressive New Year’s lady continued. I admitted to her that I was a 24-year-old divorcee, and if that didn’t reel her in, I also mentioned I knew how to play a pretty solid “Wonderwall” on guitar.

I wanted to discover my new identity, but I felt trapped by my former life. Chicago was too close to that previous version of myself. My friends all knew my ex. My work intersected with hers. I was promoting a book I co-authored that she designed.

There I was: wanting to move, wanting to travel, wanting to find myself, and desperately wanting gelato. I was Eat-Pray-Love-ing.

I left Chicago, a mecca of comedy, to return to Kalu Yala as dean of their education and research institute. I took a leave of absence from the group I was touring the nation with. I handed over one of my businesses and temporarily shut another down. I met with my ex and decided that we would sign the divorce papers after I returned from traveling.

I sold all of my belongings except those that fit into two suitcases. I don’t have much money — my checking account regularly dips below $1,000 — but I felt richer than ever.

And now here I am, on this platform (have I mentioned it’s wooden?). I’m typing away on this ever-slowing laptop, in awe of the mountains behind me, yet terrified because someone just walked by yelling, “there’s a snake!” as if announcing its presence would get rid of it.

I was recently promoted to president of Kalu Yala’s institute, so I decided to make Panama a more permanent home. In the coming months I’ll continue to straddle the line between fear and fearlessness. As I look ahead, more and more, I’m starting to feel like myself again.

Even if things are unstable and unpredictable, life can feel steady when you decide you’re in charge of it. After my divorce, I got into the driver’s seat and was able to rewrite my narrative. For the first time in a long time, I’m the author of my own story. And in this story, I’m overcoming obstacles by doing big, bold, beautiful things.

After heartbreak and loss, life reassembles itself in new ways. Now my life is more interesting than ever. When I’m in Panama City, I spend most of my time with the woman I first met during New Year’s, learning how to trust in love again. She shares a penthouse with an eccentric sustainable wood entrepreneur, and they host a rotating parade of interesting guests, including government officials, business owners and D-list celebrities.

I also spend a lot of time in San Miguel, a tiny rural village where I learn more than I teach, mostly about what matters in life (turns out, it’s family and relationships). Otherwise, I’m here in the jungle, part of a community of more than 100 students and staff members. We’re all working together to build a sustainable town. I don’t know if you’ve ever built a town, but it’s frustrating and rewarding and teaches you a lot about building a life.

It’s coincidental metaphor to work on building a town while I’m rebuilding parts of myself. I’ve discovered the power of community and the selflessness of divorce. That there’s joy in the unpredictable. That it can be freeing and exciting to realize everything is impermanent.

All of that, and I just turned 25.

Can you imagine the lessons I’ll learn by 26? Seriously, can you? If you can imagine them, please let me know on my Facebook page because I’d like for this coming year to have fewer curveballs.

I don’t know what my next moves are. I’m not quite sure what I want to do with my life. What I do know is this: I’ll stop poking fun at “Eat, Pray, Love.” It seems that a little adventure and a lot of gelato are the keys to a getting back on your feet.

Esteban Gast

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